I happened to discover this holy site when my husband and I were driving down a country road north of Des Moines when lo and behold, this building appeared. It wasn’t a mirage, but rather the Hindu Temple and Cultural Center of Iowa.
The door was open and as we peeked inside, the smell of incense wafted our way, luring us to explore further. We removed our shoes in an anteroom (and someone please tell me why we don’t do this in Christianity, because it’s such a good idea, both for cleanliness reasons and for spiritual symbolism). Then we entered the worship space in the temple, a central square room whose sides were lined with shrines containing statues of various Hindu deities. There was Ganesha the elephant-headed god, Durga with multiple arms, a regal-looking Rama and beautiful blue-skinned Krishna. Before each there was an offering of fresh food and lit oil lamps. A handful of people were either sitting on the floor or quietly moving around the room doing various tasks. The room’s reverential silence was punctuated by the periodic ringing of a bell.
“Is it O.K. for us to be here?” I whispered to a man wearing traditional garb, someone who had that indefinable air of being a priest.
“Yes, please stay,” he said, then added, “but no cameras.” (Which explains why I don’t have pictures from the inside of the temple.)
For a half hour we sat there, absorbing the sights, smells and sounds of a tradition very different from our own. Gradually more people entered, mainly women in saris with children in tow. I never did figure out exactly what was going on, but it didn’t matter. It was a fascinating experience just to sit and observe.
It’s a wonderfully disorienting thing, isn’t it, to be dropped into the middle of someone else’s religious rituals? It makes me think of how a non-Christian must view the ritual of the Eucharist, which is so familiar to me now I don’t even realize how strange it must seem to someone not used to concepts like bread and wine being proclaimed as the body and blood of Christ. But while being in that Hindu temple was a very different experience from being in my home church, there was much there that felt the same. The quietness. The peacefulness. The sense that this was a place set apart and holy.
When we left the temple, I stood for a few minutes by the entrance and marveled for a few moments at how amazing it is that this Hindu temple is located in the middle of Iowa cornfields. While the U.S. has occasional problems, prejudices, and strife relating to religion, we do religious pluralism better than any other country I know.
So stop by the temple if you happen to be in the Des Moines area. Breathe in the incense. Pay your respects to Ganesha and the other deities. Just remember to take off your shoes first.
The Hindu Temple & Cultural Center of Iowa is located four miles south of Madrid at the intersection of Highway 17 and the Des Moines River. Consult its webpage for information on the many religious rituals, services and programs offered.